Umbrella

Rihanna has been at #1 in the singles chart for nine weeks now with “Umbrella”, equalling Gnarls Barkley’s record for longest #1 this decade when “Crazy” ruled the airwaves last spring. The interesting thing is that while I heard “Crazy” loads, I’ve not even heard “Umbrella” once, to the best of my knowledge.

Part of this may be down to the fact that we got a new car last August, which has both AM radio and a CD player – the car I drove before that had only FM and a cassette deck, which meant I listened to a lot of Radio 1 while driving. These days it’s FiveLive, or sometimes an album, and as a result my handle on what’s in the charts and on the radio at any given time has dissolved almost completely.

The sad thing, if you’re at all inclined to think that it may be sad, is that I don’t really care that my link to the nation’s airwaves has died. Perhaps it’s that this whole ‘war against compression’ has driven me underground, so to speak, in terms of my taste, or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and being distracted by other matters and thus keeping current with the charts seems like less of a necessity than it used to; circa 2003/2004/2005 I was hiving the charts regularly, both in an effort to be up on everything that was happening musically and also, later on, in order to keep tabs on how Embrace were faring during their comeback, but now…

The last time I listened to Radio 1 was just over a month ago when a friend alerted me that they were going to feature the story about dynamic range compression on Newsbeat that I mentioned a few posts ago. Thinking back, the Newsbeat piece was a haemorrhaged opportunity. In their infinite wisdom, Radio 1 played two versions of an acoustic-based track by a singer-songwriter so memorable that I forget who it was; one compressed, one uncompressed. They sounded, of course, practically identical – either no one in the Newsbeat research team realised that Radio 1 applies insane levels of compression to all its signals pre-broadcast anyway, or they thought it simply didn’t matter. I’ve not tuned in since.

To digress (only not really) for a moment; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga has been my first contact with Spoon, who despite their profile in the US are utterly anonymous over here, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Trying to couch why I like the record makes it sound unremarkable though, because it literally just comes down to it being a collection of interesting songs played well; good arrangements, good melodies, good lyrics. I have a slight sense of reservation about it, however, which is down to one thing – “mastered by Howie Weinberg”. Now Weinberg’s not a butcher exactly, but he is fond of making things loud and flat these days, probably mostly due to the requests of people he’s mastered for, who fit snugly for the most part into what one might call ‘leftfield mainstream’ – PJ Harvey, Modest Mouse, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gorillaz, Billy Corgan, Muse; all people with a vested interest in radio and TV rotation.

Now the Spoon album is interesting sonically, firstly because it’s incredibly well-engineered, with tones and timbres of instruments caught beautifully, and also because of the minimalist approach to many of the songs in terms of both composition and arrangement – much of it seems to be one guitar, one piano, bass, drums and a vocal, with occasional touches of brass and the odd overdub or multi-track. As such, you can pump up each of the elements reasonably far without them starting to obscure each other, especially given the way many of the constituent instrumental parts interlink, drums falling into holes left between guitar notes or chords, basslines existing in space between the two, etcetera. Also, there’s an amount of between-song studio chatter, adding to a sense of dynamics even if the songs themselves are mostly pretty consistent – saying that, “The Ghost of You Lingers” is just a piano & vocal arrangement, and is noticeably (and wisely) quieter than the preceding or following songs, adding intimacy. Because of these factors, the absolute volume and flatness thereof isn’t too much of an issue; still, though, the kickdrum occasionally gets lost in a wall of sound, which is disappointing. I hammered Repeater + 3 Songs by Fugazi on Sunday morning, and no matter how loud I pushed it nothing ever got obscured. Likewise the 65daysofstatic album, which grows in stature in my mind every time I play it, and which couldn’t ever be described as sounding out of date, which I imagine is a consideration for many people who pump things too loud at the mixing and mastering stage.

Almost everything I’ve just said about Spoon could also apply to The National, except that their arrangements are generally that bit busier, causing an ounce more disorientation at climactic moments. Boxer is a good record, but compared to Spoon or Menomena I’m not getting nearly as excited about it as everyone else seems to be.

Interestingly, I believe Weinberg mastered both Rid Of Me and Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea by PJ Harvey, some seven years apart. Playing them back-to-back it’s interesting noting the difference between the staggering, frightening dynamic leaps in the title track of the former, and the easy consistency of the latter, which for a long time I’d thought of as the ‘better’ record. Now I’m not so sure. How much did Polly change between 1993 and 2000? I need to investigate Uh Huh Her. I suspect Stories… was partly an exercise in seeing what was possible if Polly unwound and pout some slap on. It worked, clearly.

To get back on track, perhaps… if my tastes are turning away from the mainstream it’s not because I’m after some kind of obscurantist’s cache, not trying to bask in the ennui of elitism; I just want music that’s alive and musical and exciting, that doesn’t exist purely to… well I don’t know. Let’s talk positives rather than negatives. Music that exists for the sake of being music is what I’m after, perhaps; to see what can be done, and to be musical because music is wonderful. Major labels don’t seem to have a clue how to produce or market an album today (look at the Ash album), and neither do the major music retailers (look at HMV’s dwindling profits). Looking at the Prince farrago, artists don’t either – a new album in a tatty card sleeve given away free with a Sunday newspaper that has a reputation for knee-jerk conservative bigotry only marginally lesser than its weekly incarnation is hardly the best artistic move the purple one has ever made, even if it has made him a nice sum of money.

Which is why it’s good that Fopp might survive, or at the least be resurrected, and is why I think that, if the music business is going to make it through this currently unsettling time (look at the Happy Mondays review, linked right), then it’s not going to be the gigantic behemoths that are going to lead the way, but rather the minnows that can change direction and surf the tides. This is nothing that hasn’t been said before, of course, and countless times in countless places. Fopp’s business model, it’s ethos of being slightly left-of-centre, a touch discerning and specialist in its stock, probably bodes well because they’re not underestimating their audience’s intelligence (that much). I’m fed up of walking into HMV or Virgin and not being able to find… anything even slightly out of the ordinary. I’m not even talking esoteric, just simple stuff. If you have The Tuss’ album in stock and sell some, get the EP too. As well as a couple of copies of the new Spoon album, get one each of a smattering of their back catalogue in, in case anyone has their interest piqued to investigate further. Or you could keep dozens of copies of OK Computer in, just in case Q do another ‘100 best albums ever’ issue and any of their readers don’t already own it yet.

Speaking of which… there were two (mid-to-late) teenage boys on the train when I was going home from work the other day, and one of them had an HMV bag which looked to contain a lone compact disc. I had my walkman on so couldn’t hear them, but they were chatting (even though one of them had earphones in). Eventually the one with the HMV bag took out the contents to investigate the sleeve and peel off stickers. The album? OK Computer.

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